Piscina Mirabilis, Bacoli

International competition

        Piscina Mirabilis is located on the upper terrace of the highest hill in the present-day Municipality of Bacoli, in Miseno (the ancient Misenum) overlooking the sea in the bay of Naples. At the time of its construction, Piscina Mirabilis served as a component in the largest and most complex water distribution and collection systems in the Roman world; a vast network of aqueducts and reservoirs built under Emperor Augustus Caesar (63 BC-AD 14). Dug into the tufa hillside, forty-eight huge cruciform pillars arranged in four rows down the major axis and in twelve rows on the short axis serve as support to the barrel vault above.

        The dense masonry structure was to combine traditional architectural elements with innovative construction methods, achieving an architectonic expression analogous to the monumental presence of a cathedral than of the severe expediency of a water cistern. The structure, through centuries of exposure and disuse, stands presently in a state of decay whilst not in total ruination, with much of the stucco covering peel away to reveal the tuffelli below, and many of the original roof lights in an advanced condition of degradation.

The competition invited the recasting of the cistern as a new museum dedicated to the temporary exhibition of contemporary art. Facilities such as the formalisation of the reception area and the addition of a new bookshop within the gallery were to be supported by a series of new spaces within the bounds of the site. These new facilities, consisting of a bar/restaurant, conference space and administration office, were to be designed to imbue new value and relevance to the site; embedding the programme within the community that surrounds it and offering the potential for a new civic space at the heart of the institution.

The proposed architecture has been purposefully kept to an essential expression, preserving the dignity of the historic structure and respectful of the ways in which man and nature have acted upon the existing fabric through time. Subtle gesture is made instead of grand imposition, where concern has focused on the sensitive recalibration of the space through a contemporary language that quietly interacts with the existing fabric. The proposed architecture facilitates the adjustment of the Roman cistern through a system of static and dynamic elements that sit lightly within the existing structure.

1) feet  2) connecting plate  3) balustrade  4) screen  5) stairs  6) platform

From the new entrance courtyard, access to the gallery is made by the original Roman doorway, through which a ramp steeply descends into the exhibition space. A system of bronze plates and partitions are supported by fixed footings positioned at the base of each column, forming a dynamic and adaptable platform upon which the display of art is enabled. The arrangement of these elements in various permutations creates the possibility of extensive curatorial freedom to direct and design the spatial narrative through the gallery. Specific moments and artwork are selectively lit, creating quietly charged sensory encounters against the scale and mass of the subterranean cistern.

To the street, the presence of the existing cistern is redefined by the formalisation of the existing elevations to establish a podium level upon, of travertine block, which the support spaces to the gallery are located. The podium and the arrangement of buildings which envelop the existing ruin sit with a modest permanence, unified in language and material expression, the site imbued with a new continuity and cohesion. Distinct components of the programme are split and scattered across the terrace, echoing the density of the surrounding domestic architecture.
        The proposed arrangement defines an active edge within the bounds of the site creating a new semi-public square at its centre, recalling the qualities of a hill town piazza. The architecture itself is treated as a stylistic response to the Roman ruin below, adopting elements of the Augustan classical style: an ordered, columned structure elevated on a high podium.

All art by Joseph Beuys.